The Virtual University: The Demand for Higher Education Is Rapidly Eclipsing the Ability of Traditional Universities to Provide It. the Solution Lies Online

By Kamenetz, Anya | The American Prospect, May 2010 | Go to article overview

The Virtual University: The Demand for Higher Education Is Rapidly Eclipsing the Ability of Traditional Universities to Provide It. the Solution Lies Online


Kamenetz, Anya, The American Prospect


For most of the thousand years or so since it was invented, a university education was thought to be suited for only a tiny group--a ruling class or a subculture of scholars. Today, nine out of 10 American high school seniors say they want to go to college. Since World War II, this country has turned higher education into not only a mass-market product but the best hope of achieving a middle-class income. Sending your kids to college is now part of the American dream, just like homeownership. And like homeownership, it's something for which we have been willing to go deeply into hock.

Faith in the universal power of higher learning is at the heart of modernity. From enhancing our basic humanity to preserving culture, from developing our economy and technology to redressing ills like global warming and AIDS, there are very few needs for which more education has not been prescribed. As H.G. Wells famously put it, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Young people worldwide are caught between the spiraling cost of college and an apparently bottomless hunger for it. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), today 150 million students are enrolled in some kind of education beyond high school, a 53 percent increase in less than one decade. With such numbers, there is no foreseeable way enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.

Meanwhile, here in America, the birthplace of mass higher education, we are stalling in our educational attainment while the rest of the world is roaring ahead. In the U.S., about 30 percent of high school students drop out, and just 56 percent of college freshmen complete their bachelor's degree after six years, 150 percent of the time allotted. Only a little more than a third of Americans end up with any kind of college degree. For more than a century, arguably the world's most educated nation, we've now fallen behind nine others. Unlike citizens of every other rich country except Germany, Americans in their late teens and early 20s are no more educated than older generations.

President Barack Obama clearly understands the problem. In his first address to Congress, he promised, "We will provide the support necessary for all [young Americans] to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Obama has appointed some wonderful advocates for students to the Department of Education. His administration has backed great proposals, like increasing the Pell grant's maximum amount, cutting corporate subsidies out of the student-loan program, simplifying the federal student-aid application process, and raising funding for community colleges. But nothing on the table addresses the underlying issues that make tuition rise or the capacity problems and leaks in the system.

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant's maximum doesn't address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding.

What's to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.

THE HIGHER-EDUCATION SYSTEM has a lot in common with another great challenge our country is confronting: health care. Colleges, like hospitals, have little incentive to conserve resources or compete on price. …

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